As a musician with more than 30 years' experience and a brief stint on a major label, I must admit something shocking: I'm highly annoyed by most TV music competition shows. ¶ They're annoying not only because contestants often are judged on everything except what happens when they step in front of a microphone, but because the very things that make today's biggest artists most popular — shocking attitude, in-your-face musicality, strong connection to pop culture's edge — usually knocks performers off these middle-of-the-road showcases. ¶ No wonder everybody from the Who's Roger Daltrey to the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl have complained about the way television piles lameness onto cool rock tunes like Snooki piles up free drink tickets. ¶ These shows do sell records at a time when even senior citizens know how to steal music on the Web. The shows also may be killing pop music to save it. ¶ It's time to take back some control. Here's my analysis of the three biggest music competition shows coming down the pike, with a few thoughts on whether you're helping or hurting pop music by tuning in. ¶ The music we save just might be our faves.
Debuts: Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC (WFLA-Ch. 8)
Cool points: Producer Mark Burnett (Survivor) clearly has created an anti-American Idol, with superstar coaches hip-deep in their own success (Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Maroon 5's Adam Levine) rather than years past their prime. The coaches each pick eight singers for their team based on their voices alone; if two coaches pick the same singer, the unknown vocalist gets to choose. Best of all, Burnett has promised: no embarrassingly bad vocalists played for laughs like a certain other TV contest.
Lameness: I've seen only a 12-minute, heavily edited preview, so it's tough to know what doesn't work. As cool as Aguilera and Cee Lo may be, they're also pretty trippy. Watching them try to communicate with the youngbloods might bring some unintentional comedy.
Saving or killing music? So far, the emphasis on vocal quality and performance bodes well.
Airs: Wednesdays and Thursdays on Fox (WTVT-Ch. 13)
Cool points: Contestants are better than they've been in years, while new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have been surprising gems. There's a subtle lift in watching a show where everyone, from the judges to coach/record executive Jimmy Iovine, seems to want every singer to succeed.
Lameness: The relentless praise of the judges, even when singers stumble, is slowly eroding the show's credibility. And the naked prejudice of the audience's largely female voters against women has producers already debating how to change the voting for next season.
Saving or killing music? Killing. By elevating cute, laidback boys who aren't dynamic enough to sell records.
Debuts: 10 p.m. May 30 on Bravo
Cool points: Very few. This songwriting competition is packed with youngblood also-rans (including Idol winner Jordin Sparks' "creative director." Judging by her albums, I would never have guessed she had one of those), led through challenges by host Jewel and Idol judge castoff Kara DioGuardi.
Lameness: Quite a bit. This show comes off like a songwriter-centered version of Project Runway, complete with a host/judge who can barely read cue cards and contestants who win challenges for reasons not easily apparent to viewers. Given how Idol is soaring this year, DioGuardi may want to take a chunk out of her agent for sticking her in such a pale imitation.
Saving or killing music? Killing. But it's just finishing a job started by the cookie-cutter compositions writers like DioGuardi have placed on the pop charts for years.
'CI' gets its heart back
The only reason to care about Sunday's return of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (9 p.m., USA Network) is the re-emergence of the show's most compelling character, Vincent D'Onofrio's tortured supersleuth, Detective Robert Goren.
Quirky and passionate, with a trademark habit of cocking his head to one side while he picks apart a suspect in interrogations, Goren was the damaged heart of Law & Order: CI — the only distinctive touch elevating this show from the five or six other clones and copies tried by producer Dick Wolf.
Jeff Goldblum gave a game effort and Chris Noth was entertaining enough reprising his old Law & Order character Mike Logan. But this show was built to showcase D'Onofrio's new-school Sherlock Holmes, a driven, detail-oriented cop whose psychological demons (including a homeless brother and certifiably insane mother) eventually pushed the character off the force.
The role also seemed to chew up D'Onofrio, a notoriously Method actor who gained weight and looked increasingly haggard; he was gone by spring 2010.
Now that the show is starting its final lap, D'Onofrio is back, with Julia Ormond on board as the police psychologist probing Goren's damaged psyche.
This is the one Law & Order where the character stuff is more interesting than the often implausible mysteries. Ignore Jay Mohr playing a thinly veiled Charlie Sheen Sunday and focus on D'Onofrio's Goren — a towering character stuck in a mediocre, unworthy showcase.